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Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...

Chapter 17

Haruno Sakura felt her mouth drop open as she watched the medic-nins run out into the arena and carefully place the body of Hyuuga Neji onto a stretcher. She barely saw them carry the genin away. Instead, her eyes were fixed on the blood spattered on the ground.

“Damn, that was cold,” Kiba murmured next to her, jolting her out of her shocked reverie.

“Hn,” Sasuke grunted. Sakura turned towards her crush, but his eyes were intently fixed on Uzumaki Naruto. Their former classmate appeared to be getting chewed out by Gekko Hayate, the jonin referee.

Sakura turned to her sensei, who was sitting in the row behind them. He’d allowed them a break from training in order to watch the finals, for which she was very grateful. “I never thought Naruto could be so… brutal,” she said after a moment, hoping Kakashi could explain what they’d just seen. He’d been better about doing that lately.

The last month had been very different from their earlier training. During the first team meeting since their elimination in the preliminaries, Kakashi-sensei had said he’d been very disappointed by their poor showing. Sasuke, who’d been silent since the medic-nins fixed his jaw, simply exploded, demanding that Kakashi train them. Kakashi-sensei had claimed that he was allowing them to develop their own skills, but if they couldn’t be that responsible…  What followed had been the most grueling work-out Team 7 had ever undertaken.

Since then, every team exercise had been like that. Kakashi-sensei had even started showing up for meetings on time—mostly—and his little orange books had been conspicuously absent.

Sakura jumped when Kiba made a disparaging noise. “I thought you were the brains of this team, Haruno,” he said in a challenging tone. “You saw what that jerk did to Hinata.”

Sakura turned back toward her teammate, since Kakashi-sensei hadn’t even acknowledged her question. “You think he’s still that angry about it?” she asked.

What she’d seen was… so far beyond what she expected from Naruto, it just didn’t make sense to her.

“She’s his partner,” Kiba replied with a shrug.

Sakura felt her eyes bug out at her teammate’s insinuation. “Hinata is a nice girl!” she snapped, slapping the back of Kiba’s head. He’d let slip once that his sister did that to him, and it really irritated him. It was Sakura’s best weapon for keeping the crude Inuzuka in line.

“Not like that,” Kiba protested, blocking her second swat.  “Who has the dirty mind now?” he asked with a smirk. “Look, she’s his teammate, and they train together almost constantly. Akamaru and I run across their scents all the time, especially near the training grounds. How often do you see one without the other during the day? At least before her idiot cousin put her in the hospital.”

Sakura frowned. “Why didn’t you say so then?” she asked.

“I meant partner, like Akamaru,” Kiba shot back. “If someone deliberately hurt him, I’d kill them.” The puppy wrapped around his neck yipped and licked Kiba’s cheek, making him blink.

“That’s why Sasuke’s strategy was flawed,” Kakashi-sensei said in a contemplative tone. “Taunting him did provoke a reaction, but since he couldn’t attack Neji, you took his place. Maybe you got off lightly.” With that, Kakashi-sensei reached forward and mussed Sasuke’s hair, which Sakura knew irritated him to no end.

But was that the only reason Sasuke-kun’s scowl deepened?

OoOoO

Naruto scowled up at Hayate.

“Do you understand?” the jonin asked again. “One more late hit and I’ll throw you out of here myself!”

“It wasn’t a late hit,” Naruto said, swallowing his anger. “You didn’t say anything until after I hit him.”

“You already had him beat,” Hayate said in a lower voice. “That was unnecessary.”

Naruto narrowed his eyes. “Just like before, right?”

Hayate turned and coughed. “You aren’t making yourself any friends here, Uzumaki,” he said, though his voice wasn’t as angry.

Naruto could hear some angry shouts mixed in with the scattered cheers. If people hated him for beating the Hyuuga prodigy, he wasn’t sure he cared what they thought. “People already hate me for stupid reasons. Nothing I do here today will change that,” he replied, shrugging.

Hayate sighed before raising his voice. “Winner, Uzumaki Naruto!”

OoOoO

As the majority of the stadium erupted in applause, Umino Iruka turned toward his neighbors in the quietest section of the stands. “Well,” he said in a cultured voice, “I suppose that does make it official, doesn’t it?”

“It doesn’t matter,” one of the older Hyuugas snapped. “He must have cheated to defeat Neji. That brat could never do that on his own. Therefore, any wagers are void.”

“I say!” Iruka protested in a mild tone, “Will you be asking the Hokage to intervene? Surely he will see justice done!” He glanced around to see if anyone reacted to that. Unfortunately, Hyuuga Hiashi had left the moment his nephew had been knocked out. Inwardly, he was pleased that they seemed to have forgotten his earlier slip.

“I have every confidence he will see things our way once this is all over,” a fat man in a richly brocaded robe announced.

“Very well,” Iruka conceded, “if that is the case, I will be sure to return your wagers immediately.”

“Return?” the fat man asked.

“Well yes,” Iruka said with a smile. “Our wagers are, after all, contingent on the official outcome of the match. At the current time, that outcome is a victory for this Uzumaki ruffian. While I wouldn’t dream of doubting your word that justice will prevail for your young Neji, it would be a shocking scandal if those around us thought you were actually… reneging… on your wagers.”

No sooner had the words left Iruka’s lips than several of his companions began glancing around. A few of the workmen and minor merchants near them did seem rather curious as to their lack of reaction to the conclusion of a spectacular match. That was more than enough to fertilize the seed of paranoia he’d planted.

In short order, Iruka was folding a collection of bank notes, money orders, and what looked like the deed to some sort of shop. “Well, I am simply famished,” he announced. “I think I will make my way to one of the food sellers before the next match begins. If this decision is reversed, you may of course contact me through the Hokage’s visitor registry. I am staying with a distant cousin, one Umino Iruka.”

With that, he made his way through the crowds as the next match was announced. He was a little worried that Naruto might have gone too far with Hyuuga Neji, but he accepted that if he had, it was with reason. He’d just shown people the folly of doubting Naruto – he wasn’t about to start doing it himself. He just hoped Naruto would accept a really big bowl of ramen in lieu of some cheering.

OoOoO

Despite everything that had happened, Naruto was still surprised by the reaction of the spectators as he turned to retrieve his weights. He wasn’t completely happy with how the match had gone, but he had won, after all. He just wasn’t used to people clapping their hands and cheering. He couldn’t remember the last time someone outside his circle of precious people had recognized his efforts.

But it felt really good.

Recognizing that warm glow, he finally did remember. Shino’s parents. Mastering his emotions was hard, but he swallowed and reacted the way Hinata had shown him that night. He turned toward the Hokage’s box and bowed deeply. Then he turned toward the center of the audience seating and repeated the gesture. The cheers grew even louder and Naruto found his hands were shaking a little as he pulled his chakra-enhanced weights from where they’d embedded themselves in the ground.

OoOoO

Kurenai felt her smile growing wider. She glanced over at Hinata, who appeared rooted in place. Naruto’s gracious acknowledgement of the praise could only have one ultimate source, but she didn’t think her subordinate recognized that.

The girl seemed somewhat disturbed by the brutal conclusion of the match, but she needed to recognize the necessity of what had just happened. She also needed to understand that she did have value, and that what happened to her at the preliminary matches had to have consequences.

Kurenai shook her head, even as her hands continued adding to the applause. That was a concern for another day. She wasn’t as concerned about Shino’s match, but something could still go wrong.

OoOoO

Naruto was still adjusting his wrist weights when he made his way back to the examinee’s balcony.

“Did you fulfill all your stated objectives?” Shino asked, turning toward him.

Naruto nodded. “Pretty much.”

“It was difficult to ascertain at long distance,” Shino observed, “but the damage appeared extensive.”

Naruto shrugged. “I did what I set out to do.”

Shikamaru glanced back and forth between the two of them. “You’re not up to something troublesome, are you?” he finally asked in a disgusted voice.

“We are establishing a precedent regarding acceptable behavior towards allies and team members,” Shino announced. “To that end, we propose to demonstrate a willingness to use any and all means to obtain an equitable response, ranging from coercion, influence, and tactical intelligence, to, as needed, extreme levels of physical violence.”

Shikamaru rolled his eyes and sighed.

“How would you feel if someone hurt Ino and put her in the hospital for three weeks?” Naruto demanded, frowning.

“Relieved,” Shikamaru said, but then let out a grunt when Chouji elbowed him. “Okay, that would be troublesome too. But he’s her cousin. Do you think the Hyuugas are going to like you messing around in their clan’s politics?”

Naruto’s eyes narrowed as he regarded the lazy Nara. Despite his demeanor, his classmate was smarter than he normally acted. He probably didn’t want his teachers to expect more out of him.

“That is precisely the point,” Shino replied. “If we are willing to do that to her cousin, a member of a powerful and highly respected clan with a superior blood-line, then what will we do to someone else?”

“Better if your teammate wasn’t so weak she needed you two to protect her,” the blond girl from Suna spat in a disgusted tone. Her expression suggested that she tasted something foul.

“She’s not weak,” Naruto snapped, clenching his fists. Even an echo of Neji’s words still had the power to enrage him. “She’s been told that all her life and it’s nothing but bullshit!” He made himself relax when Shino put a hand on his shoulder. The gesture from his normally reserved teammate was like a bucket of cold water on his anger.

“It’s not weakness that kept Hyuuga Hinata on her feet with a collapsed lung and lacerations of the left ventricle,” Shino stated. “It’s not weakness that made her keep getting up to fight an opponent that knew every move of her fighting style and whom she had no real expectation of defeating. I believe the appropriate descriptor is… determination.”

Naruto was vaguely aware that Shikamaru and Chouji were openly staring at Shino. Maybe they didn’t know how badly Hinata had been injured, or maybe it was the undertone of anger in the usually emotionless Aburame’s voice. In any event, the coldly analytical burst of killing intent made the Suna girl take a step back even as the face-painted guy stepped forward.

“If you disrupt the matches, I will kill you all,” Gaara said, speaking up for the first time.

While the red-headed boy was staring at Naruto when he spoke, the fear on their faces suggested that Gaara’s words were directed more towards his teammates. In any event, the two of them pointedly turned their backs on the Konoha genin and joined their brother at the railing.

Naruto swallowed. According to the dossiers Kurenai had prepared, all three of the Suna genin were children of the Kazekage. They sure didn’t act like siblings as far as he could tell. Not for the first time, he wondered how accurate Hinata’s guesses about Gaara’s upbringing were. Would he act like that if no one had ever accepted him? He shuddered. Then his attention was drawn toward the arena.

“The next match,” Hayate announced, his voice as loud as the wheezy chuunin could probably manage, “will be Aburame Shino versus Akimichi Chouji.”

Naruto turned and gave Shino a quick nod of encouragement. Shino nodded back and turned toward the stairs. Naruto stepped out of Chouji’s way as the heavy-set boy followed Shino. Then he slowly walked up to join Shikamaru at the railing.

To be honest, Naruto wasn’t as worried about this match as he might have been. While the Akimichi boy had hurt his preliminary match opponent worse than anyone else, it hadn’t really been intentional. The older genin he’d crushed was still recovering and, from what Naruto had heard, Asuma had to talk Chouji out of dropping out of the exam in remorse. To Naruto, it seemed like he’d sort of been asking for it, taunting Chouji like that.

But Shino wasn’t that stupid, and he never underestimated his opponent. But even if Chouji did surprise him, Naruto knew he wouldn’t intentionally try to inflict lasting harm. The same couldn’t be said of everyone that still remained, and he found himself watching Gaara again with his peripheral vision.

As the boys walked out onto the grounds, Naruto noticed Chouji was strapping some metallic bracers to his forearms. He knew from Kurenai-sensei’s notes that some Akimichi, including Chouji’s father, augmented their impressive physiques with heavier armor than most shinobi. Chouji hadn’t started to do so before the exam, but watching Shino’s match with Kiba evidently persuaded him to start.

Hayate appeared to speak quietly to both examinees for a moment. Naruto imagined it was more of the same “stop when I tell you to stop” stuff. Too bad he hadn’t been so cautious in the preliminary matches.

Finally, Hayate signaled for them to start. To Naruto’s surprise, Shino didn’t immediately draw his kamas. Instead, he leaped back, putting some distance between himself and the Akimichi.

Chouji didn’t waste any time, immediately using his Meatball Tank technique. It seemed to Naruto that he’d been practicing it, because his body morphed into a perfect sphere even faster than it did at the preliminary matches. Naruto frowned. It was also rolling noticeably faster than he remembered.

Thus began an extended game of tag, with Chouji chasing Shino around the arena. Shino threw a couple of kunai, but they merely bounced off the rolling juggernaut that their classmate had transformed into. Naruto frowned. He didn’t think Shino’s bugs could hold onto Chouji in this form either. If weapons bounced off as well, what could Shino do?

Naruto’s grip on the railing tightened as it looked like Shino was getting maneuvered into a corner. Chouji turned a little tighter than Naruto thought he could, blocking Shino against a couple of small trees. Just as his teammate crouched to leap over them, Chouji put on an unexpected burst of speed and sideswiped him.

Naruto inhaled sharply.

There was a burst of splinters as Chouji ground the substitution log that took Shino’s place into splinters before slamming into the arena wall. The impact made the whole stadium rumble and sent up a huge cloud of dust.

When the dust settled, Chouji was sprawled atop the small pile of rubble his technique had gouged out of the arena wall. Shino was calmly standing a short distance away, his hands in his jacket pockets.

The crowd had fallen silent, and with effort Naruto could just barely make out their words.

“That is a very impressive technique,” Shino observed.

“Not impressive enough,” Chouji groaned, rolling onto his knees to face his opponent.

“You were, however, able to sustain it much longer before running out of chakra,” Shino said.

“That’s true,” Chouji agreed. But then he abruptly jerked to his feet and stepped forward. “But I’m not out of chakra! Baika no Jutsu!” he shouted, raising his right arm which ballooned out to a monstrous size. “Sorry Shino!” he said quickly as he smashed it down on the transfixed Aburame.

Naruto felt his heart skip a beat as the giant fist obliterated his friend, making a large crater in the ground.

Shikamaru grunted, sounding annoyed.

Then Naruto saw the cloud of kikai bugs settling on Chouji’s arm, swarming up it even as it shrank back to normal size. Chouji swatted at them, but there were too many. A few flying bugs even settled in his hair. His motions became slower and slower as they drained his chakra, until he finally fell to his knees.

Shino stepped out from behind one of the trees.

Breathing heavily, Chouji managed to gasp out. “You- you got me. Call them off.”

Shino didn’t move, but the kikai bugs left Chouji’s body as quickly as they’d boarded. Soon they were streaming back under his jacket to return to their nesting places – something which Naruto spent a lot of effort trying to not think about.

The crowd had fallen silent at the unexpected conclusion to the match, but the applause started up when Shino helped Chouji to his feet and Hayate belatedly declared him the victor. The cheers continued as the boys made their way off the field.

When they returned to the examinee’s balcony, Naruto was amused to note that while Chouji was eating rapidly ‘to restore his chakra reserves’, Shino also held an unopened bag of chips in his hand.

OoOoO

Up in the stands, Aburame Misato leaned against her husband’s shoulder. “He’s such a good boy!” she cooed.

Shibi adjusted his glasses and then nodded. “The resolution of this match without unnecessary rancor speaks well regarding his maturity and emotional restraint. It is, however, probably for the best that he was not required to meet the Hyuuga we witnessed in the first match.”

Misato shrugged. “It might be better for that thug, but I think it wouldn’t hurt Shino at all. You Aburame men are so quiet - it’s pretty striking when you get passionate about something. It’s about time Shino had a few girls after him.”

Shibi turned to stare at his wife, eyebrows clearly visible above his glasses.

“What?” she asked with an innocent expression. “It worked on me, didn’t it?”

Shibi chose not to answer that question. The other Aburames sitting near them didn’t react either. Many of them had heard of Shino’s speech before the clan council and decided to attend the finals to see how he performed under a different variety of pressure.

But everyone in the clan was familiar with Misato’s… eccentricities.

OoOoO

Kurenai let out a quiet sigh of relief when Shino won. Chouji had performed slightly better than expected, but Shino had allowed for that as well.

“That was kind of boring,” she heard someone say behind her.

“Yeah,” someone else agreed. “Not like that first one. That Uzumaki kid really kicked his ass!”

“Yeah, he was definitely out for blood,” an older man’s voice agreed darkly. “A real killer, that one.”

Kurenai felt her lips compress and glanced over at Hinata. The girl had been visibly upset before, but now she was shocked to see Hinata standing up and turning to face the men behind her.

“Naruto-kun is no more a killer than any other shinobi,” she said, her voice brimming with outrage. “Shino-kun and Chouji-san are classmates, and didn’t really want to hurt each other. Neji was not like that, so Naruto couldn’t be either!”

As soon as she finished, Hinata appeared to become aware of everyone around them staring at her. She blushed and abruptly sat down. Kurenai gave her genin an approving smile, even as she circulated chakra in her ears to pick up the whispers of those around them.

“Who was that?”

“I think she’s a Hyuuga.”

“Like that Neji guy?”

“Yeah, and I think she’s teammates with the Uzumaki brat and the bug creep.”

“I wouldn’t call him a brat. My cousin says his team saved the Hokage’s grandson when he was kidnapped.”

“No kidding?”

Whether she heard them or not, Hinata’s expression didn’t change. It was set in determined lines Kurenai hadn’t seen for weeks.

Yuuhi Kurenai smiled as a knot of tension began to loosen in her stomach.

OoOoO

The next match pitted Shikamaru against the Sand kunoichi, Temari, and it started off as one of the most boring fights Naruto had ever seen. The lazy genius didn’t seem too pleased to be fighting a girl, but Naruto thought he’d be even less happy about getting his butt kicked by one. As it was, he took his own sweet time ambling down the stairs to the arena floor.

This unwillingness must have been apparent to Temari, because she began to look really annoyed. Hayate spoke to them briefly, but Naruto guessed that Shikamaru also must have said something because Temari suddenly looked murderous.

The Sand Kunoichi swung her fan at Shikamaru, making Hayate dive backwards to avoid being struck by the follow-through. The chakra-enhanced blast of wind threw up an enormous cloud of dust, but when it settled, there was no sign of her opponent.

A couple of minutes later, Naruto finally spotted his classmate. Shikamaru was skulking around the small glade of trees planted in the floor of the arena. Unlike the preliminary matches, the finals were held in an arena with more variable terrain. This made certain tactics possible, like the ones Shikamaru seemed to be intent on using.

Temari ground her teeth and stomped, but Naruto knew she wasn’t stupid enough to run into the trees – Shikamaru’s Kage Mane technique would grab her before she could do anything. Instead, she paced the area a good distance away from the grove, using her fan whenever she saw Shikamaru step out from behind a tree.

Fortunately for the lazy genius, Temari’s wind attacks also threw up great clouds of dust from the dry ground, making it difficult for anyone to see where he went when he evaded her blasts. In short, the trees were taking an awful beating, with branches snapped off and strips of bark ripped from their trunks, but Shikamaru managed to avoid serious injury.

Temari began to press her attack, moving in closer. However, after one of her blasts, Naruto grinned to see a shadowy tendril emerge from the dust cloud, sliding along the ground toward Temari’s feet. Unfortunately, the kunoichi saw it as well and leapt backwards just as Shikamaru’s jutsu hit the limits of its reach. Temari contemptuously drew a line in the sand with her fan and thereafter refused to get closer, even for a moment. The barrage of wind attacks resumed with no further response from Shikamaru. If it wasn’t for the occasional glimpse he saw, Naruto might have wondered if a stray hit had disabled him.

After almost half an hour of this, Naruto saw something fly up out of the treetops. It spun as it unfolded, revealing itself to be Shikamaru’s jacket, turned into a parachute weighted down with a kunai. Shikamaru’s shadow shot out again, much faster and thicker this time. It became thinner as it slowed down, but it reached much further than before. Naruto glanced up at the sun, and realized it was significantly lower in the sky now, extending the shadows of both Shikamaru and the arena walls.

Unfortunately, Temari glanced up as well, and saw the improvised parachute just as Shikamaru’s tendril touched the parachute’s shadow. Boosting itself off of the parachute, it arced toward Temari’s feet, but she was already in motion. Leaping backward, Temari swung her fan, getting her whole body into the motion. The parachute was flung away by the stiff wind, foiling Shikamaru’s attack even as the backdraft kicked up another cloud of dust.

But when the dust cleared, it revealed Temari standing in an unnatural posture. It took only a moment for Naruto to realize that she was aping Shikamaru’s stoop-shouldered crouch. As the dust settled, he saw Shikamaru’s shadow extending forward from his feet, angling off toward the holes Naruto’s weights had left in the ground. The sun was at a sufficiently sharp angle to leave the bottom of them in shadow, and it looked like Shikamaru had used those shadows to boost his own shadow far enough to capture Temari.

The kunoichi’s face was a mask of chagrin as she straightened up and marched toward Shikamaru, just as he walked toward her. The only difference between them was that she actually held a fan in her hands, while Shikamaru’s hands grasped only empty air. When they were about ten feet apart, Shikamaru peered intently at her, cocking his head to the side.

It was odd seeing Temari do the same. The grimace on her face spoke volumes.

“I could make you beat yourself unconscious with your fan,” Shikamaru said with a sigh, “but that would be far too troublesome. I give up.”

Shikamaru released his shadow from Temari, turned, and ambled back toward the stairs. Naruto thought he could hear a cricket chirping somewhere.

OoOoO

Temari didn’t even look at Hayate as he reluctantly declared her the winner. Her face a mask of embarrassed fury, she jumped on her fan and rode it directly up to the balcony.

Naruto glanced over at the Sand genin. Gaara’s face was an emotionless mask, but Kankuro was barely suppressing a smirk. But as Temari landed, the massive killing intent she radiated seemed to make him change his mind about saying something.

Chouji side-stepped until Shino was between him and the Sand team. Naruto frowned for a moment, and then headed down the stairs at a quick trot. He didn’t understand what was going on down there, but he didn’t think Temari was in any mood to talk.

As he suspected, Shikamaru was less than a quarter of the way up the stairs when he met him, ambling along like he was in no particular hurry.

Shikamaru frowned when he saw Naruto. “Are they making you fight again? I didn’t think your next match was for a while yet?”

“Why did you give up?” Naruto asked bluntly, taking care not to raise his voice.

Shikamaru sighed. “It’s too troublesome, that’s all.”

Naruto shook his head. “No more troublesome than having to take the whole genin exam over again because you crapped out at the last moment.”

Shikamaru’s eyes narrowed. “When did you start thinking about something besides pranks and ramen?” he asked.

“Sensei expects more from me,” Naruto answered. “And you still haven’t answered my question.”

Shikamaru sighed and slowly resumed his trudge up the stairs. “She was holding back.”

“Temari?” Naruto asked.

“No, Amaterasu the Heavenly Empress,” Shikamaru replied. “Who else would I be talking about besides Temari?”

“Sorry, geez,” Naruto apologized, shrugging.

“Anyway,” Shikamaru continued, “she wasn’t attacking all out today, even when I came close to catching her earlier. She’s conserving her strength for some reason, so I decided it might not be a good idea to squander all of mine.”

“Maybe she was saving her chakra for her next match?” Naruto asked. He tried to remember who she’d be fighting next.

“I’m not quite that pathetic, Naruto,” Shikamaru replied with a disgusted look. “And I did catch her in the end. I don’t know if there is something going on, but if there is I will be ready.”

Naruto frowned. “All right. You tell Chouji and I’ll let Shino know.”

OoOoO

Up in the stands, Sarutobi Asuma scowled. It was official now: both of Kurenai’s students have advanced farther than his. He took a drag on his cigarette, knowing it would be the last one he would enjoy for the next couple of months. If Shikamaru had beaten both of her students in the finals, he could have claimed a victory, no matter that Chouji was defeated.

He sighed. Getting Kurenai to pose for that swimsuit calendar would have been a major coup. He would even have allowed her to choose a tasteful, conservative suit. The fact that he’d gotten her to do it would have made him the envy of Konohagakure – at least the male half.

He shook his head, annoyed at his lazy genius of a student. It didn’t make sense. He’d told Shikamaru that if he forfeited he’d be paired with Ino for every group exercise until the end of the year. Usually, Asuma partnered up with the bossy blond himself to give the boys a break – something he knew Shikamaru appreciated. So why would…?

Asuma’s frown deepened. He sat up in his seat and tugged on the sides of his vest to straighten it. This also gave his fingers the chance to loosen his trench knives in their scabbards. He glanced across several rows to where Kakashi was sitting and caught the jonin’s eye.

Something might be up.

He glanced over to where Ino was sitting with her parents. She would be all right there. Too bad Gai hadn’t returned to his seat yet.

OoOoO

For obvious reasons, the arena had a small but well-equipped infirmary. The nature of shinobi combat was such that immediately life-threatening wounds were always a possibility, so sending the injured across town to the hospital wasn’t an option.

Two men, one garbed in flowing white, the other in stretchy green, confronted each other in the hallway outside the medical bay. It was fortunate that the room was chakra shielded to aid in performing delicate medical jutsu. For if the seals carved into the walls had not been there, the massive killing intent in the hall might have distracted the medics from their urgent work.

“They are still seeing to him,” Maito Gai said in a quiet voice. “He’s lost a lot of blood.”

Hyuuga Hiashi’s eyes narrowed marginally. “I’m sure you feel quite vindicated after he spurned your assistance this past month.” The words were spoken in a calm tone, but the undercurrent of venom was unmistakable.

Gai shook his head. “No. It was his choice to make. As it will be his choice whether he learns the youthful lesson or not.”

“Lesson?” Hiashi inquired in a polite, but cold voice. A minute vertical crease had appeared between his eyebrows.

“Neji has finally encountered a foe that all of his anger and his bitterness could not defeat,” Gai declared. “If he takes the correct path and casts aside his past, he will finally be able to stoke the fires of his youth!”

With every word from Gai, the crease deepened until it began to resemble a drawn-together scar. “Enough!” Hiashi finally snapped. “No more of your drivel! Neji failed today, and has drawn shame to the Hyuuga name. He will make amends for this. And if he extracts any of your ‘youthful lessons’ from this utter failure, I’ll activate his seal myself.”

Hiashi spun toward a nurse who’d stepped out of the clinic to see what all the shouting was about. She froze in place, terrified at being subjected to such massive killing intent. “I am to be informed the moment Hyuuga Neji regains consciousness, is that clear?”

It took a moment for the hapless woman to find her voice again. “Y-yes, Hiashi-sama!” she finally stammered.

Hiashi spun on his heel and stalked off.

Gai quietly cleared his throat, jerking the woman out of her relieved reverie. “How is Neji doing?” he asked in a quiet voice.

OoOoO

By the time Naruto and Shikamaru made it back up the stairs, Shino and Chouji were openly staring at the Sand team.

“Hey, do I look stupid or something?” Kankuro demanded belligerently.

“What’s wrong?” Naruto asked.

Shino turned towards him, but Naruto had a feeling his attention was still focused on the Suna shinobi. “Kankuro forfeited as soon as his match with Gaara was announced,” he said.

Surprised, Naruto turned toward the face-painted ninja. But the boy just shrugged. “I know there’s no way I can beat Gaara, so it’s stupid to even try.”

Remembering Shikamaru’s observations, Naruto began to feel even more uneasy. “Yeah, but between this and getting a bye in the preliminaries, aren’t you pretty much guaranteed not to be made a chuunin?” he asked with what he hoped looked like honest confusion.

Kankuro’s hesitation was slight, but unmistakable. “I’m not in any real hurry to advance,” he replied in a casual tone.

Naruto shook his head in puzzlement. “Whatever,” he said and went to go stand by his teammate.

“Suna is up to something,” Naruto murmured under his breath as soon as Shino’s mass blocked any view they might have had of his lips.

“I concur,” Shino replied.

After a quick consultation with the two Kage, Hayate returned to the arena floor. “The next match will be Uzumaki Naruto and Sabaku no Gaara.”

OoOoO

Only iron control kept Kurenai’s face from betraying any emotion. Despite her unease with this turn of events, she was forced to admit the Hokage probably had his reasons. Gaara had yet to face anyone, and Naruto had the most time to recover from his previous match. Moreover, given his stamina, she had little doubt that her genin was as ready as he would ever be. And if Gaara’s aggressive behavior got out of control, he was probably the best equipped to survive it.

But that didn’t mean she had to like it.

Glancing over at her subordinate, it wasn’t hard to see the concern on Hinata’s face. Given her confidence in Naruto’s capabilities, it might have seemed a little out of place.

But it was also true that Hinata had encountered Sabaku no Gaara at a time when the bland demeanor shielding his bloodlust was wholly absent.

Kurenai felt her unease grow stronger by the second.

OoOoO

Iruka fought off a wave of worried nausea as he sat down in the seat Ichiraku Teuchi and his daughter Ayame had saved for him. His rich kimono drew a few odd looks from their neighbors, but he ignored them. A quick nod confirmed that the plan had worked, making Teuchi break out into a wide smile that Iruka did not share.

He should have expected Naruto would eventually face Gaara, but he’d hoped it would have been later. Perhaps after the disturbing boy had done something to get himself disqualified. He shook his head. Not that it was likely, given his parentage. But the few hints he’d picked up from Kurenai implied that he wasn’t the only one concerned.

“Who’s this red-headed kid he’s fighting now?” Ayame asked, peering over at Iruka with clear concern.

“Dangerous,” Iruka said.

OoOoO

The Third Hokage of Konohagakure straightened slightly in his seat, trying to find a posture that would ease the aching in his tired old bones. He glanced over at his fellow Kage, wondering what was going through the man’s mind.

When Hayate appeared before them to consult on the second round of matches, the Kazekage had seemed unusually interested in seeing Naruto pitted against his son. Perhaps he felt that only another jinchuuriki could provide an adequate test for his prodigy. Perhaps he wished to make some subtle point regarding the relative strengths of the two allied villages.

Perhaps it was a waste of time to try and understand a man who could order an already bound demon be sealed within his youngest son.

“This should be a very… illuminating contest,” the Kazekage murmured.

Sarutobi nodded, not trusting his voice.

OoOoO

Naruto grinned. He was going to make a point of being extra nice to Oji-san next time he talked to him. He’d much rather fight Gaara than Shino, and volunteering him to fight the Suna jinchuuriki was a vote of confidence in his abilities that he wouldn’t forget any time soon. Not to mention him being the Kazekage’s son…

While Gaara made his way toward the stairs, Naruto vaulted over the railing, landing near the entry arch in a deep crouch. Dusting himself off, he ignored the murmurs of the crowd as he made his way over to Hayate before Gaara even appeared.

He didn’t think the weird kid would try anything on the stairs, but better not to take any chances.

“You ready for this?” Hayate murmured without moving his lips.

Naruto gave a short nod. The murmuring of the audience was quite audible. He didn’t know if they were talking about his last match or wondering if he was about to get creamed. It didn’t really matter though. For once, they weren’t ignoring him. For once, everyone was looking at Uzumaki Naruto. It was an odd feeling, especially for a ninja. Was this how the old man felt every day? Was this part of being Hokage?

The crowds became louder as Gaara emerged from the archway. Naruto bounced lightly on the balls of his feet, trying to loosen up until Hayate gave him a sharp look.

In sharp contrast, Gaara stood there as if ignoring everything in the world – except Naruto. His dark-ringed eyes bored into Naruto’s. “Will you validate my existence?” he asked in a dry whisper.

“Begin!” Hayate announced, but he was already in mid-air, leaping back and away from the two combatants.

Naruto didn’t waste any time. He charged in, attacking as hard and as fast as he could manage. Sand flowed out of the calabash gourd on Gaara’s back. It surged around him, blocking every attack, and then reached out to grab Naruto. 

Naruto darted in and out, trying to get a feel for how fast the sand could move. After a couple of near misses, he leapt backward. Gaara hadn’t even moved from the spot he started the fight in.

“Let’s see how fast you are with wet sand!” Naruto taunted. “Suiton: Condensation!” he cried as he finished the seals, pumping as much chakra into the technique as he could manage without totally disrupting it.

A geyser of water roared out of the vortex that formed in front of Naruto’s clasped hands. It shot toward Gaara, only to be blocked by the sand. Huge clots of wet sand flew in a spray around the Suna genin, but as he frowned, the sand shielding him compressed more and more until the water just sprayed off it to little effect.

Landing in a crouch, Naruto grinned. The spatters of wet sand were returning to Gaara, but nowhere near as quickly as they normally moved. “Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!” he called out, surrounding his enemy with clones. The clones scattered, throwing kunai and loose stones, dodging back as tendrils of sand lashed out at them.

Naruto circled around, dodging like crazy, even using Kawarimi no Jutsu to switch places with his clones to avoid pounding hammers of sand. Every time he got a clear shot, he blasted Gaara with another overloaded Suiton fire-hose. It was getting harder and harder to do as he leeched most of the free moisture from the air and ground of the arena. But it forced Gaara to tie up more and more of his sand into forming a sandstone shell around him to stop the blasts.

Finally, Gaara had completely surrounded himself with a sphere of compressed sand that seemed impervious to Naruto’s attacks. Kunai glanced off, and any of his clones that wandered too close were impaled on spikes that grew out of the surface.

That’s when Naruto dropped to the ground a good ten meters from his foe and used his trump card against ultimate defenses. “Doton: Yomi Numa!” he said as he stamped the ground. Funneling the chakra through his leg was good practice…

And it looked really cool as well.

As before, the ground dropped away in front of him, being converted into swampy mire as all the standing water from his Suiton attacks was pulled into the Swamp of the Underworld technique. Gaara’s sphere immediately began to descend into the muck – sandstone, natural or not, was heavy.

As Naruto watched it drop into the mud, a much smaller sphere that looked eerily like an eye appeared on top of Gaara’s refuge. It quickly looked left and right in a way that suggested startled panic. Naruto’s grin widened. It looked like his guess had paid off.

Ultimate Defense or not, Gaara still needed to breathe.

The stone sphere split apart like an orange peel, wedge-shaped sections peeling back and elongating as they reached toward the edges of Naruto’s swamp. Gaara was revealed, standing on the lower half of the stony sphere as it raised itself above the mire.

Naruto flashed forward, his weights left on the ground behind him.

Charging into Sabaku no Gaara’s defenses at anything less than full speed was suicide, so he pushed himself to go as fast as possible. Lee had managed to avoid the sand for a while, even before opening his celestial gates, so Naruto thought the risk was worth it. He cleared half the width of his swamp in a single running leap.

Evidently the sand moved slower when compressed, because it didn’t immediately grab his foot when he landed and punched Gaara full on in the face. The startled Sand shinobi didn’t even try to block and Naruto wondered if he knew any taijutsu.

Still, Naruto’s fist felt like he’d punched a tree as Gaara catapulted backward off of the platform. It must have been that stupid final layer of sand that had protected Gaara from Lee’s attacks. Naruto leapt clear just as the sand reached for his feet. He’d angled the blow upwards to knock Gaara completely clear of the swamp, and the follow-up kick he’d landed in mid-air slammed Gaara to the ground well clear of the jutsu.

Wisps of sand were already detaching themselves from the remains of Gaara’s calabash and reaching towards Naruto. When he landed he pivoted and ran past Gaara, hammerfisting the back of his opponent’s head as he went. Gaara was catapulted off of his feet, landing even farther from the swamp.

Naruto wasn’t sure if Gaara’s control over his sand grew weaker with distance or not, but getting him farther away from the mass slowly pushing itself out of the swamp seemed like a good idea.

Gaara’s remaining sand cushioned his landing, so Naruto gave him another fire-hose blast from Suiton: Condensation. This far away from his previous uses of the technique, it worked much better than the last few times he’d tried it, and Gaara was sent tumbling.

So far, his plan was working perfectly.

OoOoO

Kurenai couldn’t help but raise her eyebrows at her student’s aggressive tactics. Evidently, he was trying to deny Gaara any opportunity to collect himself and was wearing down his defenses by tying up his sand in various ways.

So far, it seemed to be working, but she wondered if Naruto had placed too great a reliance on the information she’d gathered.

OoOoO

“Wow, Naruto’s really cleaning his clock,” Teuchi said in a low voice. Ayame was biting her knuckle in an attempt to stifle her squeals. 

Iruka nodded slowly, amazed by how much his one-time problem student had progressed. At the same time, he worried about what he’d overheard earlier. Naruto’s enemies would never again assume he was no threat. He just hoped the boy was ready.

OoOoO

Naruto’s knuckles were throbbing, but Gaara’s armor of sand looked more like a jigsaw puzzle. He landed an uppercut under Gaara’s jaw that sent a jolt of pain down the length of his forearm. Gaara, however, was lifted off his feet and landed in a heap.

Mindful of Hayate’s wrath and the fact that this was the Kazekage’s son, Naruto paused for a second before kicking him again. “Do you want to stop this, Gaara-san?” he asked.

Gaara ignored the question. Instead, he reached with trembling fingers toward his mouth, which was now bleeding freely from a split lip. Blotting the crimson with his fingertips, he pulled his hand back and stared at it. And then screamed.

A burst of golden-colored chakra sent Naruto stumbling backwards. Gaara’s bloody hand morphed into a monstrous tan appendage far too big for the body it was attached to. It lashed out with shocking speed and sent Naruto flying backwards.

Gaara staggered to his feet, his arm slowly returning to normal. Naruto barely saw the shadow forming around him in time to leap clear before a tidal wave of sand engulfed him. He landed awkwardly, still dazed from the blow, and rolled to his feet in time to see Gaara’s sand return to him.

OoOoO

Up in the stands, people began falling asleep as visions of falling feathers dulled their wits.

Kurenai felt the illusionary technique as soon as it began. It wasn’t especially hard to resist, but what was surprising was how wide-spread it seemed to be. Someone with great skill had expended an enormous amount of chakra to envelop the entire stadium in a wide area sleep compulsion. The genjutsu was, in fact, so wide spread that she couldn’t really home in on the source of the technique either.

With some pride, she noticed Hinata suppressing her own chakra to shed the effects with almost the same speed as her teacher.

OoOoO

Shino’s colonies registered the presence of foreign chakra even as he noticed the motion in the stands as the spectators began keeling over. If his assumption was correct and this was a genjutsu effect, it did not seem to extend downward to the examinee balcony. He turned slightly to examine the Suna shinobi using his peripheral vision. Their body language proclaimed that they were tense and expectant, but not surprised by this turn of events.

He twitched his fingers to signal Shikamaru as he ordered both his colonies to attack the sand ninjas. If he was incorrect in his projections, he would deal with the consequences later.

Kikai bugs poured out from under his jacket, coating the floor as they surged toward the enemies of Konoha.

OoOoO

Sabaku no Gaara weaved unsteadily on his feet, clearly disoriented from the beating he’d just taken. However, he had reclaimed his sand and Naruto knew he was back to square one. His opponent’s automatic defense wouldn’t likely be affected by any dizziness.

Moreover, Naruto had no idea how he’d been knocked back like that. Well, he had an idea, but it was too awful to bear thinking about. If Gaara was as hateful and isolated as Hinata guessed, maybe he’d turned to his demon…?

Gaara wasn’t even paying any attention to him at the moment. He just stood there, staring at the blood on his fingertips and whispering to himself. Naruto took a deep breath and brought his hands together for another Suiton jutsu.

Even as he was molding his chakra, his attention was diverted by a loud boom as a cloud of smoke enveloped the Kage’s balcony. His stomach dropped, but he told himself not to worry. Oji-san wasn’t weak; he could take care of himself.

As he turned back, Temari and Kankuro leapt down to land on either side of their brother and teammate. They looked like they wanted to steady him, but were afraid of getting too close.

“He… he hurt me…” Gaara said in a disjointed voice, showing Temari the blood on his fingertips. His eyebrows drew together. “He hurt me!”  Gaara took an unsteady step towards Naruto.

“Gaara, wait!” Temari began, but was cut off when a Sand jonin wearing a veil across half of his face landed between them and Naruto. He looked vaguely familiar.

“Stop this immediately! The mission has started!” he said. He turned toward Naruto and his killing intent spiked.

In a flash, Hayate appeared next to Naruto. Gone was the harassed, sickly-looking referee, and in his place was a focused jonin. Naruto swallowed.

Gaara let out a strangled cry and fell to his knees, holding his head. The Sand jonin scowled and turned. “What’s wrong with him?” he asked in a harsh voice.

Temari hovered over the red-haired genin with a worried expression. “He’s dazed. He might have a concussion. The Armor of Sand protected him from a lot of the damage, but it used up most of his chakra. I don’t think he can use it anymore.”

“Idiot,” spat the sand jonin, who Naruto now recognized from his briefing as Baki, the Sand team’s jonin-sensei. “I told him to take this seriously. Gaara is the Sand’s trump card. Get him out of here until he’s had time to recover. Then you will resume the mission.”

Kankuro gingerly helped Gaara to his feet, hauling an arm across his shoulders.

“What about you, sensei?” Temari asked.

“I will deal with these,” he replied, turning back toward Naruto and Hayate.

“You think it will be that easy?” Hayate asked as another jonin, this one with a senbon needle in his mouth and cloth tied over his hair, landed next to him. 

“Go!” Baki ordered, and they leapt out of there just as a pair of kunai thudded into the ground where they’d been standing. Shino and Shikamaru, kunai in their hands, started after them, but Baki turned toward them with murder in his eyes, and they hesitated. Behind them, Naruto could see a tired Chouji puffing toward them, clearly still low on chakra.

“So,” the senbon-chewing jonin said with a lazy grin that never reached his eyes. “Is Orochimaru behind this little party?”

The sound of that name had Naruto baring his teeth. If sensei was right, he owed that freak the beating of his life. Then his eyes wandered up toward the stands. Everyone was lying down like they were asleep or dead. A few people were up, but all of them were fighting. Sensei…

“I don’t know about that,” Baki replied. “But none of you are leaving this arena alive.”

“We’ll handle this, Naruto,” Hayate said, stepping between him and Baki. “I’m afraid the exam is over now. Right, Genma?”

The guy with the senbon smirked. “Just like old times. Hey, why don’t you kids go report to your sensei? I think we’re going to need everyone to dance today.”

Naruto nodded with a grunt.

The jonin closed in on each other as the genin left.

OoOoO

Iruka ducked under a kunai as it embedded itself in the wall above him. He was able to recognize the genjutsu and disrupt it before it put him to sleep, but he couldn’t remove it from Teuchi or his daughter, or any of the other spectators in their section. He wasn’t carrying most of his equipment because of his infiltration mission – the Hyuugas might have sensed any weapons and been put on their guard.

But the sleeping bodyguard of a fairly prosperous-looking merchant had a short sword he was able to borrow, and he was putting it to good use against shinobi wearing Sound hitai-ite. He heard the explosion and saw the cloud of smoke where the Hokage had been sitting, but he couldn’t really spare it any attention. There were enemies right here, threatening helpless civilians from his village. His elaborate kimono bore numerous tears from near misses, and his blade was stained with blood, but he was damned if he was going to abandon them.

Iruka dove forward into a roll as two more kunai flew toward him. One nicked his ear, but he ignored the pain as he closed in with a sound ninja that tried to use a substitution technique just an instant too late. The hilt in his hand jolted as he rammed the sword through the ninja’s stomach, glancing off the spinal column.

OoOoO

Neither Naruto nor Shino wanted to risk getting trapped inside the stairwells. Ignoring their protests, Naruto grabbed Chouji while Shino grabbed the back of Shikamaru’s mesh shirt and they ran up the arena wall to the stands.

Seeing all those people laid out and helpless made Naruto’s stomach turn, but he concentrated on looking for motion. He saw Konoha, Suna, and Sound shinobi flash from point to point, accompanied by the clang of metal on metal. He tried to remember exactly where Kurenai-sensei was planning to sit when Shino gestured for them to follow him.

The four genin cut through three sections of seating. Naruto ignored the dead bodies, glad that most of them appeared to be wearing Hidden Sound insignia. But his stomach flip-flopped when he saw a young girl in civilian clothes with a kunai buried in her stomach, eyes opened in death. She’d never had a chance.

“Are you sure-“ Naruto started to ask Shino, but stopped when he saw a shinobi wearing a grey jumpsuit with a mantle made of black and white camouflage material. The Oto-nin turned toward them, raising a kunai when a tree suddenly sprouted from the stands beside him. In an instant, the tree’s limbs reached out and engulfed him, twisting his head around as he thrashed. There was a loud crack and the ninja stopped moving. The tree melted away to reveal Kurenai-sensei with her hands around the man’s neck, which she quickly released.

As the dead ninja fell to the ground, Hinata stepped around her teacher, her Byakugan active. “That’s the last one here, sensei,” she reported in a quiet voice.

Naruto let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

“Team Eight is reporting for duty,” Shino said, adjusting his glasses. “We appear to have been betrayed by both Sound and Sand. There was some sort of plan involving Sabaku no Gaara, but it has been derailed by Naruto’s action. The Sand genin escaped with help from their jonin instructor, who is now fighting two Konoha jonin. We were instructed by them to report to you for further orders.”

Kurenai nodded, and then glanced over at Shikamaru and Chouji.

“Yeah, us too,” Shikamaru added. “Asuma should have known something was up when I forfeited. Have you seen him around?”

Kurenai shook her head and the lazy genin sighed.

Turning to Naruto, Kurenai look at him intently. “Naruto, how are your chakra reserves?”

Naruto took a deep breath. He didn’t feel very tired, but he wasn’t quite as fidgety as normal either. “Good enough, sensei.”

Kurenai looked out across the stadium. “I don’t think any of our forces will be affected, but this genjutsu is rendering a lot of people helpless and we can’t evacuate them all.” She turned back toward her genin. “Naruto, I want you to generate a chakra pulse to dispel this for everyone.”

Naruto nodded and began focusing his chakra. “How far do you want me to push it?” he asked in a tight voice.

Kurenai frowned. “I can’t tell from here how far this extends. Push it as far as you can.”

Naruto closed his eyes to focus, trusting his team to protect him while he was concentrating. He brought his hands together as the pressure below his hara became almost unbearable. He opened his eyes just in time to see Hinata quickly shutting off her Byakugan, holding up a hand to shade her eyes against a bright blue glare.

“Naruto Majutsu,” he growled, feeling his hair stir in an invisible wind, “Chakra Pulse!”

Naruto had spent every afternoon of the last three weeks working on ninjutsu with Jiraiya, the self-styled Toad Hermit of Konoha. In between cajoling the old pervert to show him new techniques, Naruto had also been engaging in elaborate exercises to develop his chakra control. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to him that this might affect how he performed other techniques

But it was.

A shockwave pulsed out in all directions, as visible as a thick pane of glass that refracts the light. Shikamaru and Chouji grunted as it passed through them, while Shino actually winced. Kurenai and Hinata were standing a little further way, and while the jonin didn’t react, Hinata did blush heavily.

But the most visible reactions were among the sleeping spectators, who immediately flinched and woke.

OoOoO

Umino Iruka was on his last legs. His clothing was torn to rags, he was covered with bruises, cuts, and scrapes, and the sword he’d appropriated had just been knocked out of his hand. The sound shinobi he’d fought, who was at least upper chuunin if not an actual jonin, wasn’t looking that much better. But at least he was still armed.

Iruka flung a bloodied hunk of what used to be a 5000 ryou kimono at the Oto-nin’s eyes, but he was too experienced to fall for such a trick. He slashed it out of the air without dropping his guard, cutting off Iruka’s escape.

Iruka edged back into the corner, warily measuring his opponent’s reach with his kunai. He was bracing himself for what would probably be a suicidal rush when a wave of pure chakra passed through him, making him dizzy for a split-second. It wasn’t enough to distract his opponent, not long enough for him to do anything anyway, but for some reason Iruka felt like he was missing something.

The Sound ninja shook his head and stepped forward. “Whatever that was, it won’t be enough,” he said in a cocky voice that made Iruka wish for another weapon.

Then the Oto-nin stiffened, eyes widening even as he pitched forward on his face. A brace of throwing knives protruded from the back of his tunic. Iruka looked up to see the crowd stirring, civilians as well as some shame-faced chuunin and genin.

A large man stepped forward, and Iruka recognized him as the guard he’d borrowed the short sword from. He shook his head at Iruka as he kneeled down and wrenched the knives out of the Oto-nin’s back with brutal economy. As the folds of his tunic parted, Iruka could see the edge of a hitai-ite. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a blade around here, about three hands long?” he asked in a gruff voice.

Iruka was too tired to be embarrassed.

OoOoO

Sakura was vastly relieved when she felt the genjutsu release its hold on those around her. She’d detected it as it was forming, and she and Sasuke had been able to break it. Kiba wasn’t so fast and he and Akamaru had slumped down on the bench. Kakashi-sensei brusquely ordered them both to stay put and guard their teammate while he and Ino’s jonin-sensei fought the Sound ninjas that suddenly emerged from the audience.

She’d been uncomfortably reminded of their unsuccessful mission to protect Tazuna the bridge-builder. Holding a kunai, watching others battle, but knowing if they turned on her she wouldn’t last a moment. Something deep inside of her wanted to turn and run from the danger. But she also knew that both Sasuke and her sensei would never truly trust her if she broke now. She’d never be able to look Kiba in the eye if she left him to his fate. So she held her ground and waited for the inevitable.

Then a surge of chakra nearly sent her to her knees. There was something familiar about it, but she couldn’t really place it. That odd sense of déjà vu was quickly forgotten as the people around her began to wake up – including Kiba and Akamaru.

Abruptly, the Sound ninja began to withdraw. It was clearly one thing to use superior numbers to face the few elite that resisted the genjutsu. But it was something else when all the chuunin and genin joined in as well.

Kakashi appeared in front of them as Kiba was standing up again, shaking his head. “Your mission is now to lead the spectators to the emergency shelters,” he said with no preamble. “There are a lot of people here from outside the village who won’t know where to go. Once you get them there, you will join the guard force until you are relieved. Is that clear?” Gone was the playful cajoling tone he’d used so often. In its place was the voice of an ANBU captain giving orders in an emergency.

Sasuke-kun looked rebellious, but didn’t object. Sakura let out a sigh of relief.

OoOoO

Outside Konoha, teams of Sound shinobi were entering the last phases of a very elaborate summoning ritual. Such rituals were necessary to perform a summons that any one of them lacked the requisite chakra to perform.

Sitting in precisely delineated positions along and within the summoning circles, they had just unfurled their carefully-prepared scrolls when a wave of almost-solid chakra passed through the clearing.

The delicately chakra-infused summoning diagrams shattered like spun glass smashed with a sledgehammer. The carefully calibrated summoning, designed to call forth one of Manda’s oldest offspring, was irrevocably fractured. Instead of summoning a senior envoy of the Snake Leader, it called forth thousands of his newest spawn. These newborn snakes were barely larger than a finger, too mindless to understand human speech, and extremely irritable after their first summoning. They were also horrifically poisonous.

Within forty seconds every mammal in the clearing was dead.

OoOoO

Naruto dropped to his knees, panting for breath. Kurenai could tell he’d put a lot of effort into that technique.

Kurenai looked around the wakening stadium. “I knew that would be useful some day,” she said approvingly. Naruto gave her a tired grin.

“While we may have foiled this gambit,” Shino said, “I think there is more to their plan than a simple attack.”

Naruto frowned. “The Suna kunoichi, Temari, she said something about Gaara being too dizzy and exhausted to use ‘it’. Whatever that means, their sensei got really angry when he heard that. He said Gaara was the Sand’s trump card.”

Kurenai frowned. This was still potentially dangerous. “Where are they now?”

“They got away,” Naruto said with a frown. “Their sensei told them to go, and then stayed to block us.”

Shino cleared his throat.

Naruto turned to Shino. “You tagged Gaara?”

“No,” Shino replied. “My allies refused to go near him.”

“Damn,” Naruto growled, smacking his fist into his palm.

“I did, however, tag the other two members of his team when they were on the balcony,” Shino clarified, straightening his shoulders and shoving his hands into his jacket pockets.

“Good work, Shino,” Kurenai said. Finding them quickly without kikai pheromones would be impossible.

“I was merely being proactive based upon cues I received from Naruto,” Shino replied evenly.

“You’re still a sneaky bastard,” Naruto said with a weak laugh. “And you freaking rock.”

“Very well,” Kurenai said, thinking for a moment. “Naruto, your strategy against Gaara seemed fairly effective and it doesn’t appear that he’s recovered yet. You and Shino take Shikamaru and try to run them down before they can try anything else. Chouji, you seem a little tired so we will link up with Asuma and any other jonin we meet. Now that I know what to look for, if their genjutsu user tries to start this again, I should be able to locate them. Are there any questions?”

The genin shook their heads, Shikamaru perhaps a bit less than enthusiastically.

“Good. Stay alert and be careful out there,” she said. “Now go.”

The three boys quickly made their way to the exit. Even Asuma’s laziest student showed some haste. Hinata started after them when Kurenai grabbed her shoulder. “Hinata, I don’t think you are-“

“They might need my eyes, sensei,” Hinata replied, turning toward her. “I will not get in their way or slow them down.” The girl’s face showed an implacable resolve that robbed Kurenai of any desire to stop her. She’d never seen the soft-spoken Hyuuga looking quite so fierce.

“Then hurry, Hinata,” Kurenai ordered. “But be careful.”

Author notes:

Many thanks to Runsamok and Bibliophile for beta work that just reeks of awesome.

Thanks also go out to the members of the Viridian Dreams forum, whose speculations and tribulations drove the expansion of a couple of otherwise minor plot points. This Iruka is for you, folks!

As far as questions regarding future canon events – don’t assume they will even be issues. Events that have roots that occur before the start of this story will still have their affects… but as you can see, the outcomes may be quite different. So asking me about the timeskip is sort of meaningless right now.

And just to be clear - Shino tagged Temari and Kankuro before the first match. The attack he launched on the balcony is why they jumped down to the arena floor. No one wants to get eaten alive.

If you have questions on my upcoming chapters, I have progress bars on my blog, and you can ask questions on the forum. The links to both are in my profile.

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